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Feb 25, 2014

As fossil fuels rule with an iron fist, renewables flapping in the wind

Wind farms have been shown to have no ill health effects, but that won't stop the anti-renewables lobby from repeating the furphy that they are bad for your health. All in all, it's a bad time to be in the business of clean energy.


Just one hour after the National Health and Medical Research Council had given a clean bill of health to the nation’s wind farms, Fairfax websites published this story: around 25,000 face masks are being distributed to residents in Morwell and Traralgon to filter out ash and smoke from the fire at the Hazelwood coal mine.

Nothing could better highlight the current absurdity of Australia’s energy debate. As fossil fuels continue to burn and pollute, a witch-hunt accommodated and encouraged by the new Abbott government has brought the large-scale renewable energy industry to a halt, and it could close it down entirely. Small-scale renewables, such as rooftop solar and energy efficiency schemes, are also under attack.

The wind industry has been hit the hardest. Behind the scenes, the campaign is being orchestrated by fossil fuel interests, their media lackeys and self-appointed apologists whom University of Sydney professor Simon Chapman describes as having all the qualities of the “anti-vaccine and antifluoride fruitcakes”.

The NHMRC study has given the industry a clean bill of health, but it is unlikely to deliver a clear path to development.

Australia’s leading health review body found there is no reliable or consistent evidence that proximity to wind farms or wind farm noise directly causes health effects. This echoes every other investigation that has been conducted into the industry. The study found that there was consistent but poor-quality evidence that proximity to wind turbines was associated with annoyance and, less consistently, with sleep disturbance and poorer quality of life.

But finding an association between wind farms and these health-related effects does not mean that wind turbines cause these problems. These associations could be due to selection or information bias or to confounding factors.

So-called “wind turbine syndrome” is just one of the issues that are thrown at the wind energy industry by its detractors and its competitors. The others are costs, reliability and integration into the grid, and wind energy’s ability to reduce emissions. All issues have been thoroughly debunked, but they all are regularly parroted by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in the briefing notes prepared by his inner core of advisers.

There are several layers of strategy that deal with the issue of climate change that have been defined for governments by the deep-pocketed fossil fuel lobbies that prevail in the United States, Australia and elsewhere: first you deny the science; then you accept the science but play down its impacts; then you set no policy that reflects that supposed engagement; and then you urge less deployment of clean energy and more R&D, in the apparent expectation that it will become cost competitive.

It already is. But left to their own devices, the incumbent generators have no interest in building new wind farms because it will affect the value of their already fully depreciated existing assets — many of which have been built over recent decades courtesy of historic subsidies and market protection, and whose power of incumbency is reinforced by the structure of the national electricity market.

“The Coalition, smarter than your average Labor bear, knew what it had to do to stop renewables in their tracks.”

The Renewable Energy Target is designed to accelerate the transition to a clean energy future by providing a mechanism to facilitate that new investment in wind, solar and other renewables, and push ageing and dirty fossil fuel generation out the other side.

Australia’s falling electricity demand — courtesy of a proliferation of rooftop solar, energy-efficient appliances and warm winters — would appear to provide the opportunity to make that policy a resounding success. The minimum target of 20%, set a few years ago, could turn out to be more than 25%.

But just as the first Mandatory Renewable Target under the Howard government was branded “too successful” and brought to a sudden halt, the same fate awaits the current target.

Nearly a decade ago, Howard government appointee Grant Tambling, a former Liberal politician who actually went off-script and found that renewables were a good thing and the target should be expanded. His advice was rejected. The Abbott government has taken no chances this time round, appointing climate change sceptic (“I am not a denier”) Dick Warburton to head the panel.

If Warburton does not even accept the science of climate change, let alone the need to phase out fossil fuels, he is unlikely to support policies that encourage renewables, whatever the facts about costs, system integration and health benefits are put in front of him.

The clean energy industry must be kicking itself. The new RET review is justified by the Abbott government because it is a statutory requirement. It need not have been; the Climate Change Authority in the last review handed down in 2012 said a four-year spacing between reviews was essential to give the industry the certainty it required.

The Coalition, smarter than your average Labor bear, knew what it had to do to stop renewables in their tracks. The government “endorsed” the CCA findings but insisted all along that another review should be held. Behind the scenes, the Coalition was saying there would be “trouble” if the legislation was changed.

The clean energy industry could have called its bluff, but it blinked instead, and advised Labor not to incur the wrath of the new government by changing the legislation. It seems absurd now. From the moment it was clear that the Coalition would likely win the election and a review would be inevitable, new wind energy developments have been brought to a halt, and this is flowing through to plans for large-scale solar.

And the situation is likely to remain unchanged until the government has endorsed or done otherwise with the Warburton review and formulated its energy white paper.

*This article was originally published at RenewEconomy


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21 thoughts on “As fossil fuels rule with an iron fist, renewables flapping in the wind

  1. klewso

    What do you expect from a fossilised government?

  2. Geoff Russell

    NHMRC giving wind a clean bill of health is much the same as UNSCEAR giving nuclear a clean bill of health. It doesn’t necessarily stop the fear mongers working their magic and making people sick with worry. It’s always interesting how the anti-nuclear lobby loves to quote official sources when it suits them and rubbish them when it doesn’t.

    But the renewable investment panic may end up being a blessing in disguise.

    The latest IEA figures don’t include December yet, but the YTD figures for Germany, which has been doing it’s level best to build renewables ASAP shows that the 2013 output is below the 2012 output. IE, the much lauded “exponential” growth is done and they can’t even manage to hold ground. And guess what coal is booming.

    The German “renewable revolution” added renewables at about 1/5 the rate of the French nuclear build and it’s already running out of puff and burning 1/2 its timber harvest in an assault on its forests that is tragic. I kind of understand the enthusiasm for solar and wind, but how often and comprehensively do they have to fail before people say “enough”? $2.2 billion for Ivanpah solar or $16 billion for UK nuclear build at Hinkley Point C? How obvious can something be? You’d have to build 25 x Ivanpahs to match the output (that’s $55 billion) of the nukes and you’d have to build them twice because the nukes will run for 60 years. Renewables are simply to slow, too expensive and too environmentally destructive.

    And if you can’t afford the Hinkley dollars, you can buy the Chinese/South Korean versions at about half the cost.

  3. Aidan Stanger

    Build cost isn’t everything. Solar and wind have a lower running cost than nuclear, and a much lower running cost than fossil fuels.

  4. Electric Lardyland

    I’m still waiting for an Australian journalist to ask Abbott the obvious question; “When are you going to develop the honesty and integrity, to tell the Australian people, that you don’t actually believe in the science of climate change?”

  5. AR

    If the recent announcement that electricity prices will rise for domestic users due to the future closure of Alcoa doesn’t give everyone with half a brain a bad case of cognitive dissonance they were are indeed, to put it in technical terms, fucked.
    I thought that I was listening to a satirical skit when I heard some flack aver that the generators AND retailers have enormous fixed costs which must be financed.
    That’s the crux of the matter, the point of the gold plating of the distribution system to make them attractive to privatisation (the costs having already been socialised)but only with a capitve market, so comprehensively threatened by PhV, solar hot water and reduced usage.

  6. Geoff Russell

    Aidan: Sure, uranium might add 5% over 25 years. But for me the big issue isn’t actually costs, worrying about costs in the face of climate change is like worrying about hospital costs when your appendix has ruptured. We need a solution and fast, so the big issue is build speed and renewables are just glacial … witness our wasted decade with rooftop solar and witness the historical rollout speed of nuclear:
    We could have had a few reactors running or close and instead all we have is a million solar rooftops (woopee!)

    The environmental cost of renewables is also horrible … covering wildlife habitat in concrete/steel/mirrors and using biomass as either backup or baseload (as proposed by AEMO 100% renewable study and as is happening in Germany now). We need to be rolling back deforestation not starting up new slash and burn industries or removing valuable crop residues to run down soil quality.

    (http://bravenewclimate.com/2013/06/11/renewable-electricity-nirvana/ and http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/issue-4/harmonic-destruction)

  7. Electric Lardyland

    Well put, AR, I thought you might be interested in this Bill McKibben article, addressing another crux of the matter.


  8. Ted Parker

    We have lived off grid (solar) for 5 years very comfortably with all mod cons thanks. You can just scale it up as much as you like to run whatever you like but the will isn’t there and also deniers don’t like it, they would rather burn something.

  9. Aidan Stanger

    Geoff Russell #6
    If you could convince everyone else of the problem then cost wouldn’t be the biggest issue, though there would still be two reasons to treat it as pretty big: firstly, no matter how big the problem is, there will always be some people who don’t care. Secondly even if there were a consensus on taking immediate and effective action, the economy would suffer if it wasn’t done efficiently.

    It is nuclear, not solar, that has a glacial build speed. It takes several years to plan and build a reactor. That’s several years when its output is zero, whereas there’s no technical reason why solar couldn’t double its output within a year. Cost (especislly to homeowners who don’t have much money) is the biggest barrier to solar, but nuclear has additional technical obstructions.

    The cost of nuclear power is a lot more than just the uranium. It is expensive to staff, and expensive to manage the waste. And a 60 year running life is quite optimistic.

    The environmental cost of renewables is overstated. Wildlife below them beforehand can usually continue afterwards, and the value of straw for soil wuality really isn’t that great. The best way to reverse deforestation is to ensure planting of More trees is economically viable. And there’s also the option of pyrolysis which turns the crop residue into gas (one obvious use of which it to burn to generate power) and inorganic carbon (with other nutrients included) which is a great soil improver.

    Nuclear energy has a great future globally, but in Australia with our sunny conditions and low demand density, renewables can outperform it. But to make it so, we must ensure that those who want to install it get the cheap credit needed in order for it to make financial sense.

  10. Mark Duffett

    It is nuclear, not solar, that has a glacial build speed. It takes several years to plan and build a reactor.

    You’re missing Geoff’s point about scale. These things are not equivalent. Good luck trying to build 25 x 392 MW concentrating solar thermal plants (i.e. Ivanpahs) in ‘several years’.

    And far from being optimistic, 60 years reactor lifetime for modern designs could well be on the conservative side. 80 years is entirely reasonable: aps.org/publications/apsnews/201312/apsreport.cfm

  11. Geoff Russell

    Aidan: As Mark says the issue is scale. You have to compare like with like. The final Ivanpah EIS is here:


    Dated July 2010 … it’s now Feb 2014 and all they’ve built is 1/12th of one Hinkley C EPR reactor’s worth of electricity. Where are the other 24? As I said … glacial in the extreme. The build speed that matters is per-capita 24×7 electricity and not just enough to replace today’s usage, but enough to replace ALL fossil fuel usage. Electricity is only 25% of fossil fuel energy and we need to clean up everything. The UAE began their nuclear plans in 2009 and 11 years later they’ll be getting 44 TWh/yr of clean electricity. It’s less than half our size but obviously a lot smarter.

    But even talking about 1/12th of a nuke is a silly comparison. Would you compare the speed of a car which couldn’t operate at night with one that could operate whenever you liked? Nobody would do such a thing. But solar advocates constantly talk as if electricity at mother natures whim is the same as 24×7 despatchable power … it isn’t. AEMO knows that, that’s why they put a biomass baseload system underneath.

  12. Aidan Stanger

    Mark Duffett –
    No, I’m not missing Geoff’s point at all. You’re missing mine: the slow pace of past solar power installation is unrelated to its future potential. If we create the economic conditions for future solar investment, installation will not ony be much faster than in the past, but it will accelerate as firms boost supply to meet demand.

    But forget Ivanpahs: CST will only be viable for peakload (using molten salt storage). Rooftop PV works out cheaper when the sun’s shining. And when we run out of roofspace, rangeland PV is probably the best option.

  13. Geoff Russell

    I believe nuclear can be rolled out 3-7 times faster than Germany’s current wind+solar rollout because Belgium, France, Sweden, have done it and the UAE is on track to do it. You believe solar can be rolled out many times faster than it has been because of … what? … an article of faith, totally unrelated to any analysis of the bottlenecks of parallel production.

    If you can build one Ivanpah in 3.5 years, can you build 1000 in 3.5 years? That’s like saying that we can install 1x4k solar PV is an afternoon, therefore with the right investment we can install 10 million in an afternoon. Obviously rubbish. But why? With rangeland PV the bottleneck might be permission to use the sites or it might be trucks or truck drivers or the physical flow of panels, but rest assured parallelism can’t scale by magic. You are simply guessing and willing to bet the planet on your guess.

  14. Aidan Stanger

    Nuclear is highly specialized, and CST would probably require a factory to build all the tilting mirrors. But PV merely involves the installation of off the shelf components that are already produced in the millions – there are no significant supply bottlenecks. A workforce is still needed (so of course we can’t install 10 million in an afternoon) but most of the produciton is done in China.

    With rangeland PV, the graziers would get the benefit of shade for their stock and water concentration (similar to the way the vegetation grows much lusher adjacent to a sealed road). And if you think there’ll be a shortage of trucks or drivers, I really do think you’re grasping at straws!

  15. Geoff Russell

    WWF proposed that “only” 1% of global land mass covered in PV could power the planet. I guess it could … with storage … of which none is on the near horizon. To cover 1 pecent of Australia would required ALL of our 81,000 articulated vehicles to be pulled away from what they are currently doing for 4 full years and make 50 million round trips to the bush. No more carrying harvests to market … that’s not a straw that’s a bottleneck.


    Do you know what global PV production is? Have you thought about what it would need to be to be building hundreds of PV versions of Ivanpah in every country on the planet? Who will build all the extra PV factories required and how long will they take to build? Please stop guessing and do the maths.

  16. Mark Duffett

    Grasping at straws? Sure about that, Aidan? I seem to recall a piece that had a stab at quantifying the resourcing issues implied by industrial-scale PV rollout…ah here it is, it’s by a chap called, er, Geoff Russell: bravenewclimate.com/2013/03/14/81000-truckers-for-solar/

    Not to mention that spacing the panels out to permit pasture growth as you suggest would at least double the extent required, with all the implied extra length of connections and servicing infrastructure.

  17. Geoff Russell

    Aidan: Have a look at the (really badly designed) graphic on page 51 (Fig 36) … on this overview of PV industry outlook:


    What it says is that production capacity is currently above installation rates by a few percent and PV installation rates over Europe are at about 0.4 MWh/yr per person … about 1/12th of the French nuclear install rate in the 80s. The PV growth rate has been linear for two years. So to install the bucket loads of PV that would be useful would require a massive build of productive capacity. How long would that take? I’ve no idea but your claim that it’s can be done without causing a delay needs evidence. Please provide it.

    There are, of course, nuclear bottlenecks also. But we know that they can be dealt with because we have historical examples of it happening, not just once but in multiple countries.

  18. Aidan Stanger

    That graph only shows the production and capacity shares of each region – it doesn’t compare production to capacity at all. But on page 49 it says

    Despite some cases of specific material/component shortage that have been seen in the last three years, module production capacity was in between 150-230% higher than annual global installations.

    Australia’s energy demand is a lot smaller than you imagine. It certainly wouldn’t require a (100km)^2. Indeed ISTR reading in New Scientist that that much would be sufficient to supply the entire world’s electricity needs, though I can’t find a reference for that. I don’t think anyone anywhere else has claimed that anything like 1% of the world’s landmass would need to be covered in solar cells to meet our energy requirements – the WWF’s use of that figure related only to high population density countries.

    I hope your assumptions about nuclear build times are correct, but looking at what’s happened in
    Britain I remain skeptical.

    And I know of no CST facility in the world that uses biomass for baseload. Most direct steam solar thermal is located where nuclear power already supplies the baseload. Ivanpah’s bsckup is gas not biofuel. The purpose of the backup is to keep the power on after several consecutive cloudy days, not to keep the power on at night.

  19. Andybob

    You can find the NHMRC Draft Information Paper here:


    Basically the NHMRC says the existing studies are insufficient to find a causal link between wind farms and health effects. If you reframed the question to “Do the existing studies show that wind farms are safe ?” the answer would also be no. Yet media outlets report all statements by health authorities that there is insufficient evidence to decide the question either way as meaning wind farms are safe.

    The NHMRC says that more studies are required and sets out what those studies should look like in Appendix C. It is worth reading.

  20. Geoff Russell

    Aidan: The circular graphs say that production and capacity are all within a few percent in each region … which is incompatible with your quote from page 49 (which seems
    pretty clear). So possibly the graphs are measuring production and capacity rather than actual installations. or perhaps there’s plenty of stockpiling because of over supply? In any case it
    doesn’t matter too much. Supposing production could double quickly. That only makes it 6 times slower than nuclear to build … assuming you can install as fast as you can produce which isn’t at all obvious. But given that Germany looks to have produced less renewable energy in 2013 than 2012, then a doubling of installation rates looks unlikely. Germany is running out of rich people and they are the one of the richest countries in Europe. So the market model of subsidising the wealthy to invest simply isn’t working … whereas the French/Belgium/Swedish models that were used in the oil crisis all worked … meaning the Government by Nike model: just do it. It’s infrastructure, it’s profitable, stop waiting for private companies, just collect the taxes and build it. It’s traditionally how Western Countries did most big things. Free market on top of natural monopolies.

  21. Aidan Stanger

    Geoff Russell: The circular graphs show that the regional market share of production and the regional market share of capacity are within a few percent of each other. Any inferrence that production is close to capacity is merely an error on your part.

    You also seem to have gained the false impression that I think solar’s advantage over nuclear applies everywhere. Let me make it clear that my argument only relates to Australia. Other countries have much higher population density, and most aren’t as sunny, so nuclear power makes much more economic sense than it does here.

    And rather than subsidizing the weatlthy to invest, I think we should enable everyone (regardless of credit history) to do so (at low interest, with repayents built into their future electricity bills).


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